Cars used to suck. 

For the first thirty years of their existence cars were not very useful. They were built one at a time by hand, primarily by artisans. They didn’t go very fast. If something broke, replacement parts needed to be custom-made. The roads belonged to horses, so their narrow wheels made for extremely uncomfortable rides where breakdowns were common. And there were no gas stations, so you had to figure out your own supply of fuel. 

Cars began their life as toys for the wealthy, mostly to show other people how wealthy they were. They had minimal function beyond being novel and exciting. No one relied on it as a serious mode of transportation.

It wasn’t until the Model T that cars got useful.

How?

By designing cars as standardized products on an assembly line where every car was the same, Ford could produce more cars faster and cheaper. The cars became more reliable and easily fixable. They became faster than horses offering more storage. 

But to make that happen, it required a change in approach. First, it focused on what was critical to the car’s success. They eliminated fussy stylization and handcrafted elements, giving way to the famous line about how you can have a Model T in any color you want so long as it’s black. Standardization or process and deliverable brough the Model T to a far wider audience, creating its own ecosystem of gas stations, mechanics and parts suppliers to support them.

The impact was phenomenal. The Model T changed the game because it stopped being a novelty only the wealthy could afford and became a true tool that created value for millions. 

Employer branding is approaching a similar Model T moment. 

Thirty years after its conception, employer branding is still an investment made by the biggest and most profitable companies. Brands are effectively hand-built by teams of artisans, leading to high price tags that don’t have clear connections to ROI or value to the company. Companies invest in employer branding to “keep up” with their competition, but very often have no defined goal or stated purpose that it can achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, done well, a strong employer brand creates value in many ways. But compared to the rigor or discipline of consumer marketing, what many companies call employer branding is mostly pleasantly positive platitudes without measure or impact. Worst of all, even if they had built and activated a strong employer brand, recruiters aren’t being properly prepared to take advantage of it, sapping it of value.

Welcome to employer branding’s Model T moment. 

After three decades of experimentation and ideation, testing the limits of consumer branding within a recruiting space, employer branding has found ways to make meaningful tactical impact without the baggage. Focusing less on the “creative vibe” of what leadership wants people to think about them or how many people want to apply, it is starting to be seen as a powerful driver of value to talent acquisition, human resources, communications, marketing and leadership.

With clear business impact and streamlined costs, employer branding is now accessible to companies who used to be too small to take advantage of it.

How does this shift happen?

Standardize employer brand’s purpose (not its tactics). Companies often look to the employer brand function as the “keeper of the pom poms,” the cheerleader who says nice things about the company to attract the maximum number of applicants. Employer branding should focus more on making the people you’d actually want to hire want to work there. To target and communicate compelling and meaningful messages rather than spraying job boards with meaningless messages of “we’re great!”

Stand out rather than blend in. An employer brand that doesn’t create and prove how the company is different isn’t an employer brand. It’s an employer bland, designed to provide a fig leaf of positivity over shoddy hiring and employment policies rather than embracing what makes the company unique. When all companies are talking about their great culture or how they are a lovely place to work, there’s nothing worth choosing, and hiring becomes a race to elevate salaries.

Focus on outcomes, not vibes. The majority of brands have more in common with motivational posters than a credible position that allows the company to stand out in crowded talent markets. Rather than accept that employer brands are super positive slogans, an employer brand should be so clear as to what the company is offering new hires that it pushes away at least as many people as it attracts. That demands a brand that is attempting to create optimal hires rather than a high volume of applications.

Process, not projects. We’ve been taught to expect that employer brands are built by other people: consultants, agencies, etc. And because of that, they are scoped as projects. But having a brand and living a brand are two very different things. When built by outsiders, the goal of a brand project is to be accepted by leadership, which means something safe and creative looking. But when you start to think about the employer brand as a process, the goal shifts away from getting the final installment of payment, but to connect the brand to every aspect of the company. 

Branding changes the math

Think of a potential great hire, someone who won’t just fill the seat but truly elevate it. Wouldn’t they be valuable to every other company in your industry? As the bell of the ball being courted by many other companies, all saying similar things, it’s the company that gets specific about what they offer and embraces the negative aspects to prove its claims that will end up making the hire.

In a sea of “we are a great place to work,” making it clear that new hires will work 100 hour work weeks (Goldman Sachs), or that expectations are insanely high (SpaceX), or that working there will tell the world that you’re the best at what you do (Netflix) is how you build a pipeline of talent who want more that “just a job” but want exactly what you offer. 

These are brands that create choice so that the right people, the people you actually want to hire and the people your hiring managers would love to talk to, won’t just accept recruiter calls but already want to work for you. They’re already pre-sold on what you are offering. They know what you stand for and what to expect. 

These are brands that do more than take up space on a career site, but get work done.

And this changes the math. Gone will be discussions about how many job posts to push to or how many channels can host your ad. Instead, you’ll be finding new ways to talk about how you are different so that the perfect hire starts chasing you.

In the same way the Model T turned playthings for the rich into critical and vital parts of modern life, we need to change employer branding from novelties big companies use into the standard approach to talent strategy that every company can take advantage of.

Employer brands designed to be accessible by every company to be focused less on the creative vibe of what the company is trying to say, to not concern itself so much with how positive it is and how much people love it. But more in driving actual value to the talent acquisition team to the recruiting team to HR to comms to marketing to leadership.

Having already written four books, I have decided to change things up. What you just read is the first chapter in my next as-yet-unfinished book Specific, Attractive, Different & Real: The Formula for Better Hiring. If this chapter made you excited to read more, let me know. That way I know it’s worth spending time on.


Authors
James Ellis

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade. You can find him on LinkedIn or subscribe to his free weekly newsletter The Change Agents.  


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